Brother Harold Palmer’s Hermitage at Shepherds Law in Northumberland is a remarkable ecumenical experiment, writes Nigel Aston
On a remote hillside in north Northumberland, a remarkable experiment in Catholic Christian ecumenism is taking place through the witness of Brother Harold Palmer. His is a remarkable story that deserves to be better known, for it can act as an inspiration to the whole Catholic movement in the Church of England and beyond: what Brother Harold has done at Shepherds Law deserves to be protected as a pearl of Christian observance and one to be safeguarded for the future, for it recalls the whole Church to treasure its apostolic origins before the eleventh century sundering of the Western and Eastern Churches.
An inspirational blend
Amid some ramshackle farm buildings at the top of Shepherds Law, the visitors (and they are always welcome) will stumble upon the Hermitage of St Mary and St Cuthbert, a one-man monastery (but with space for more), a miniature retreat centre, and a new shrine church of St Mary the Glorious Mother that in its design and fittings inspirationally blends the best of Byzantium with the Romanesque. Here, priests from three communions come to celebrate Mass, men and women come individually to find spiritual refreshment, and are welcome to join Harold in saying the daily offices. Quite simply, there is nowhere else in England like Shepherds Law because it offers Catholic Christians a vision of what the Church might be, one with the life of liturgy and prayer at its core, a prophetic working out of what Brother Harold calls ‘the unity that is to come, with, as inspiration and nourishment, the life-giving tradition of the undivided Church’.
Healing the separation
Brother Harold’s awareness of the importance of prayer for Christian Unity was first awakened in the early Sixties while he was a novice member of the Society of St Francis (SSF) at Glasshampton. His ambition throughout these formative years was a commitment to a contemplative monastic life and it was only fulled by extended visits to places such as Le Bec, Chevotogne and Mount Athos. He applied to the Chapter of the Society for permission to live as a Hermit in 1970 and, once consent was granted, began looking for an empty dwelling.
What he actually found was a ruined farmyard but it would be the centre for an ecumenical project of prayer forUnity between Rome and Canterbury that he put together with the help of Frère Jean-Claude, a French Capuchin Friar, who had proposed a twinning arrangement, with prayer for the healing of Christian separation. There would be two hermitages and the English one would be at Shepherds Law. With the support of the Guardian of the Alnmouth Friary, the then Archdeacon of Lindisfarne (Harry Bates) and the landowner, Sir Ralph Carr-Ellison (who sadly died this August), restoration work began while Harold occupied an old green mission caravan on the premises and commenced his eremitical life and ecumenical dedication. It fused elements of the contemplative monastic tradition of prayer with the forms and language of the Book of Common Prayer, all in the light of the Vatican II liturgical reforms.
Meanwhile, Harold made occasional visits to Catholic and Orthodox monasteries abroad, and began to build a hermitage out of the old stones that lay discarded around Shepherds Law, and welcomed the young people who came to assist in the work. Eventually, in 1989 a building containing four separate cells of permanent accommodation was completed and dedicated by archbishop Robert Runcie that summer. But, most strikingly of all, a purpose-built chapel of St Mary the Glorious Mother was built between 1997 and 2004.
Gradually, and naturally, Harold developed a sense of communion with the pre-Reformation monastic saints of Northumbria. He incorporated into the daily liturgy forms of prayer used by the Durham monks to celebrate the festivals of their patron, St Cuthbert. Shepherds Law was becoming a meeting place for Catholics, Anglicans and Orthodox, a neutral ground and a place of common ground, a pattern of what the Church Catholic might be.
The ecumenical nature of Harold’s Hermitage did not change in essentials when he became a Roman Catholic in 1996, for the late Bishop Ambrose Griffiths of Hexham and Newcastle directed that the Anglican forms of the monastic tradition were to be continued. Harold was a kind of one-man Ordinariate 15 years before the Ordinariate was established! Shepherds Law went on offering a form of Christian worship that transcended the normal denominational boundaries, buttressed by Harold’s first-hand acquaintance with developments in France through regular exchange visits with his friend and collaborator, Frère Jean-Claude.
Safeguarding for the future
The priority now is to safeguard the Hermitage for the future so that Harold’s successors in residence can consolidate and develop his remarkable initiative for the future. The Hermitage needs to be handed on safely. How is this very desirable objective to be accomplished? First, new Brothers are required, younger men who want to come and occupy one of the three cells that exist at Shepherds Law to live out the contemplative monastic life in Northumbria in our day and in the unique way that Brother Harold has pioneered and which would build on his powerful and distinctive form of ecumenical witness.
We are all familiar with the pressing need to encourage vocations to the religious life and a life at the Hermitage has the distinctive dimension of a mini-monastery, one that might be used to appeal to some of those enquiring. And that is where a new local organization might assist: the Friends of Shepherds Law, a group that has been formed with a view to fund raising and modestly extending the existing buildings and facilities. Which brings us to the second objective. For new Brothers to come to the Hermitage, the legal basis of its ecoumenical witness requires more precise articulation. The position is currently that on Brother Harold’s retirement or death, the Anglican Society of St Francis would have the reversion and there is no cast-iron guarantee that the Society would consider that working with Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians was quite such a priority as it is now. And precise stipulation of that ecumenical basis to Shepherds Law will also require the consent of the trustees whose tenants the Society are.
Spreading the word
Above all, the future of the Hermitage will be that much more likely if those that know it spread the word, encourage their priests to go and celebrate Mass in that wonderful chapel, and their people to consider using it for small-scale retreats. If you are going to Lindisfarne, think of going on to Shepherds Law, too. You will find the spirit of St Cuthbert no less present on that hilltop than it is on Holy Island.
There is no website as yet but enquiries may be sent to Brother Harold at Shepherds Law, Alnwick, Northumberland NE66 2DZ (s.a.e. appreciated), or contact Richard Sharp at